Counting down the Irish: The Top Five

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This ends our annual exercise. To check out past results,  start here. For this season, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings also include No. 25-21, 20-16, and 15-11 and 10-6

 

It’s official. Brian Kelly won yesterday’s press conference. Now we’ll find out the five players who’ll have the largest say in whether the Irish perform up to the lofty standards their head coach set yesterday.

If there’s been anything that’s glaringly stood out about this list, it’s the incredible depth Notre Dame has built up in Kelly’s six years in South Bend. And while most of the focus the past few weeks has been on the players departing—reserve defensive ends and third-string running backs somehow making their way onto the ESPN bottom line—it was pretty clear that those deletions won’t do much to derail Notre Dame’s intentions.

While most agree that this team is Notre Dame’s “best shot” in quite some time, it’s also worth pointing out the balance in this list.

Players in their final season of eligibility: Six.
Players with two years remaining: 12*
Players with three years remaining: Five.
Players with four years remaining: Two.

*This group includes Jaylon Smith, Ronnie Stanley and KeiVarae Russell, all likely candidates to turn professional after this season.

Of course, those stay-or-go decisions will be worries for another day. But even if nine players return from this talented group, it’ll form a core that’ll be more than supplemented by young and emerging personnel.

The message? The future is bright. But today, none of that means more than the present. Here are the final rankings for our annual Top 25.

 

 

2015 IRISH TOP 25 RANKINGS

25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB

19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT
15. Steve Elmer, RG
14. Isaac Rochell, DE
13. Max Redfield, S
12. Joe Schmidt, LB
11. Jarron Jones, DT
10. Malik Zaire, QB
9. C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
8. Nick Martin, C
7. Cole Luke, CB
6. Tarean Folston, RB

 

Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

5. Sheldon Day (DL, Senior): We’ve spent years hearing Notre Dame’s coaches rave about Day’s abilities. Now it’s finally time to see him put together a season up to the standard set for him. Yesterday, Brian Kelly talked about different ways the Irish can utilize Day, perhaps shifting him outside on passing downs while moving someone else (Isaac Rochell, maybe?) to the three-technique. But Day’s pass rushing clout is more theoretical than anything we’ve actually seen proven. His career total is 3.5, just a shade more than a single sack a season.

That’s not to say that Day hasn’t been productive. But an elite player’s stat-line can’t include near-misses and almost disruptions.

Health has been a major barrier for Day. Only as a part-time freshman did he play every game. Entering his final season is South Bend, Day is healthy and ready to play to his potential. If he does, Notre Dame believes they have one of the country’s best and most versatile defensive linemen. Now Day needs to go out and prove it.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 7th.

 

Oklahoma v Notre Dame
Oklahoma v Notre DameJackson Laizure/Getty Images

4. KeiVarae Russell (CB, Senior): The long road back to the playing field is almost complete for Russell. And once he steps on the field, we’ll be done getting our updates on Notre Dame’s most impressive defensive back from his Instagram account, and instead we will see if Russell is able to pick up where he left off in the Pinstripe Bowl, dominating the game as a cover corner.

Russell has elite athletic traits. He’s fast, explosive, long-enough to cover tall receivers and quick enough to hang with the smaller ones. Perhaps best of all is his self-belief, a non-stop ball of energy and positivity who will infect this defense, unwilling to allow a swoon to hit like the one that ruined the 2014 season.

Heading into fall camp last year, the coaching staff expected Russell to emerge as one of the nation’s best cornerbacks. Paired with Cole Luke, Notre Dame should—and should is the operative word—have one of the best tandems in the country. But it’ll depend not just on Luke making the leap as an upperclassmen, but Russell shaking off the rust that comes with spending a year working against pylons and boxes, not wide receivers.

Highest Ranking: 3rd. Lowest Ranking: 6th.

 

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images

3. Will Fuller (WR, Junior): No player gets less credit for a record-setting season than Will Fuller. While Irish fans—and usually the national media—jump at the chance to talk about Notre Dame’s next great playmaker, Fuller managed to stay mostly anonymous on the national level after putting together the finest sophomore season of any wide receiver in school history.

Fuller’s versatility belies his modest measurables. He’s a deep threat who can get behind any defense. But he’s also one of the elite screen-game receivers in football, a dynamic threat who can break a quick throw into a touchdown.

There’s probably not much of an argument to push Fuller any higher up this list. But for all the complaints about Fuller’s mental lapses—he had too many drops and disappeared at times—the second-year receiver had a better overall season than Jaylon Smith, who currently graces the cover of Sports Illustrated and sits atop this list.

We’ll find out what turning the offense over to Malik Zaire does to Fuller’s productivity. A more prolific running game could take touches away from the Irish’s top receiver. But even if defenses turn their attention to slowing down Notre Dame’s next great receiver, that doesn’t mean Fuller needs to let them.

Highest Ranking: 2nd. Lowest Ranking: 8th.

 

Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images

2. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Senior): Getting Ronnie Stanley to stick around South Bend for another season was the biggest recruiting win of the offseason. As draftnik’s broke down 2014 film, Stanley’s outstanding play kept jumping off the screen, with many believing that Notre Dame’s left tackle was the best prospect at his position in the draft class.

Stanley took a big step during bowl preparations, stepping forward as a leader and marking his territory against an LSU defense that was among the best statistical units in the SEC. Now the charge will be to do it every game, anchoring the edge of the Irish offensive line and making sure that both pass protection and run blocking are dominant parts of his portfolio.

There is little chance that Stanley plays out his eligibility. But if he has a good season in 2015 he’s a candidate to be the draft’s first-overall selection… and that likely means the Irish offense was the most dynamic of the Kelly era.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 3rd.

 

Jaylon Smith
Jaylon SmithAP Photo/Michael Conroy, File

1. Jaylon Smith (LB, Junior): There’s no doubting Smith’s elite athletic traits. Nor that he’s still learning how to properly utilize them. A superhero in training, Smith’s sophomore season was filled with impressive moments, but not without a few humbling ones as well. But ultimately this group couldn’t get beyond the talent and versatility of Notre Dame’s third-year standout, almost a perfect linebacker in today’s game.

This is Smith’s second season atop our rankings. That’s lofty territory, and makes sense when you see Smith’s name on multiple preseason All-American lists. But as a junior who also has high first-round evaluations floating around, it’s up to Smith to prove he can do more than just the exceptional, but rather that he can do what’s expected of him, and do it at a level of mastery.

The stage is set for Smith to absolutely fill the stat-sheet. With proper depth at the inside linebacker positions, Smith can utilize his speed as a pass rusher, playing on the edge if needed. He’ll be able to help in coverage, erasing all but the most talented of tight ends, backs and receivers. But he’ll need to lose the freelancing from his game, somewhere he lapsed later in the season, especially after Joe Schmidt went down.

Put simply, Notre Dame’s most talented player wasn’t always its best and most responsible. But that should change in 2015.

Highest Ranking: 1st. Lowest Ranking: 2nd.

 

***

Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s running backs, as few of them as there are

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Notre Dame will open spring practice in about two weeks. As always, the proceedings will be filled with positive reviews, optimistic outlooks, and an injury or two.

A quick look at each position group should lend a better understanding to those perspectives and effects, beginning with the group lacking many questions — the running backs. The biggest reason there is relative certainty around the running backs is there are just so few of them following the winter dismissals of rising junior Deon McIntosh and rising sophomore C.J. Holmes.

Spring Roster:
Rising senior Dexter Williams (pictured above)
Rising junior Tony Jones
Early-enrolled freshman Jahmir Smith
Rising junior Mick Assaf

Summer Arrivals:
Incoming freshman C’Bo Flemister

No one received more praise last spring practice than Tony Jones. He had a successful 2017, but compared to that hype, it could have been considered under-performing. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Depth Chart Possibilities:
At some point, either Williams or Jones will be named the Irish starter. It is quite possible that will be a distinction without much difference, as the two could certainly complement each other well in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, which already prefers to use multiple running backs.

Human nature, though, dictates is more likely one back receives a majority of the carries.

Biggest Question:
If Williams lines up with the No. 1 offensive unit in the Blue-Gold Game (April 21) to conclude spring practice, that will be the first genuine and tangible evidence he has improved as a pass blocker. Despite his big-play speed and seeming-ease breaking tackles, Williams’ one-dimensional game rendered him as much a liability as an asset in 2017.

Even in the Citrus Bowl victory, Williams followed up back-to-back rushes for a combined 36 yards with a blown pass protection resulting in a 13-yard sack.

“You have to be able to protect the quarterback with all positions,” Long said Feb. 7. “That dictates a whole lot if you’re going to play a lot or just be a situational guy. It’s something you have to embrace, the physicality.

“… That’s really the main thing, other than protecting the ball, that’ll keep a back off the field in our offense.”

The best ability is availability, and both an ankle injury and a balky quad limited Williams in that respect in 2017. Little blame can be cast for the natural bruises of football. Nonetheless, he will need to “embrace the physicality” if he wants to become more than a situational back.

Otherwise, Jones will be the default option. He has already shown a knack for both pass blocking and catching, making him a three-down option. Notre Dame will always prefer that rather than tip its hand to a running play every time Williams enters the game.

2017 Statistically Speaking:
Obviously, Josh Adams carried the burden in the running game last season. Behind rising senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and McIntosh, Williams was only the No. 4 rusher on the roster in yards and touchdowns, while Jones was No. 4 in carries and No. 5 in yards and scores.

Williams: 360 yards on 39 carries, a 9.2 average, with four touchdowns. Two catches for 13 yards and one score.
Jones: 232 yards on 44 carries, a 5.3 average, with three touchdowns. Six catches for 12 yards.
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jahmir Smith
Notre Dame gets the letter: C’Bo Flemister

Monday’s Leftovers: Geography, as much as academics, caps Notre Dame’s recruiting possibilites

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A year ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly acknowledged a practical ceiling on Irish recruiting efforts.

“Since I’ve been here, if you look at the average rankings, we’re anywhere from 5 to 15,” Kelly said on 2017’s National Signing Day, a day on which Notre Dame secured the No. 13 class in the country, per rivals.com. “We’re going to fall somewhere in that range because there’s a line there we can’t get over based upon what our distinctions are here. That line is going to keep us between 5 and 15.

“We know where we’re going to fall. We’re going to continue to recruit the right kind of kids here.”

Sure enough, the Irish once again fall into that spectrum in 2018, finishing No. 11 per rivals. Though Notre Dame has risen above that range once (No. 3 in 2013) and fallen below it once (No. 20 in 2012) during Kelly’s tenure, his overall analysis remains accurate.

The instinct has always been to cite University academic standards as the greatest hurdle to rising into the top five consistently, but another aspect should not be overlooked. In a recent mailbag, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pondered the factors keeping the Irish from becoming a perennial 10-win team.

“Another major reason is a lack of a local recruiting base,” Staples wrote. “No program has a stronger national reach than Notre Dame, but that still doesn’t make recruiting nationally easy. It’s much easier to have hundreds of quality prospects within driving distances.”

That dynamic is a part of why the Irish are better positioned to reap rewards from high school juniors now being able to take official visits in April, May and June. Those time periods are less hectic for most high schoolers, so a long-distance trip may fit into the calendar with a bit less stress. Obviously, only time will tell the true impact of that new change.

Looking at both this past year’s recruiting rankings and the last nine years of rankings underscores and supports Staples’ point.

Rivals considered 33 prospects to be five-star recruits in 2018. Only seven schools managed to sign multiple such players: Georgia (8), Clemson (6), USC (5), Alabama (3), Ohio State (3), Penn State (2), and Miami (2). To speak more broadly, four schools in the Deep South, two in the Ohio-Pennsylvania corridor and one in California, all talent-rich areas, especially compared to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan.

If combining the total signees of both four- and five-star rankings by rivals, Notre Dame signed 12 such prospects. Only 11 schools signed more, including six of the above seven. (Clemson equaled the Irish haul, though its even split between four- and five-star recruits stands out compared to Notre Dame’s 12 four-stars.) The additional five: Oklahoma, Texas, Florida State, Auburn and Florida. In other words, two schools tapping into Texas, two schools within Florida and one more in the Deep South.

If looking at the last nine years of recruiting, the span of Kelly’s time in South Bend, only eight programs have consistently out-recruited the Irish, all but one mentioned already. LSU finished with the No. 13 recruiting class in 2018, lowering its nine-year average placement to 8.0. The Tigers are one of five SEC teams in that group of eight, joining Florida State, Ohio State and USC.

Sense a theme?

It will always be hard enough for Notre Dame to find high-caliber players likely to succeed at a strong academic institution in the Midwest. That task is even harder knowing how far away those players typically are to start with.

Other programs face a similar challenge, and few handle it as well. Consider the 2018 recruiting classes of Stanford, Michigan and Michigan State, for familiar context.

Stanford finished with 4 four-stars in rivals’ No. 63 class. The Wolverines pulled in 7 four-stars as part of the No. 24 class, while the Spartans signed 5 four-stars in the No. 26 grouping.

The Blue-Chip Ratio
Finishing within Kelly’s range has not stopped Notre Dame from consistently having one of the most-talented rosters in the country. If abiding by rivals rankings for consistency, 45 of the 89 players currently on the Irish roster (including incoming freshmen) were four- or five-star recruits.

A commonly-cited metric of a roster’s talent is the so-called “Blue-Chip Ratio.” Essentially, a national championship caliber team will have at least 50 percent of its roster consisting of former four- or five-star prospects. Entering 2017, Notre Dame was one of only 10 such teams in the country.

As should be expected, the other nine included six programs from the Deep South, Ohio State, USC and, as an ode to Jim Harbaugh’s early recruiting successes, Michigan.

A Presidents Day Reminder
Notre Dame cannot officially claim any POTUS as an alum, but both Josiah Bartlet and James Marshall would like to argue otherwise.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
Notre Dame’s pending attrition actually intended to improve the roster
NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012
Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not
‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle
Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

OUTSIDE READING:
NCAA appeals committee upholds vacation of Notre Dame wins
A letter from the President on the NCAA Infractions Case
Irish set high expectations for Jurkovec
Elston ‘recruits’ Tillery, Bonner for one last ride
Giants release defensive end Ishaq Williams with a failed physical designation
Re-ranking the longest FBS coaching tenures from 1-to-230
Hip injury to keep Stanford QB K.J. Costello sidelined for much of spring drills

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.